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Successful suicide interventions don’t aim to instantly solve a youth’s problems, just merely bring their distress back down to a manageable, nonlethal level. To achieve this goal, there are several important tasks you should have in mind:

Youth suicide intervention goal #1: Listen

Your first objective is to listen intently and in a non-judgmental way. Those who become suicidal have typically suffered in silence for some period of time. Simply letting them unload their thoughts onto a sympathetic ear can make a substantial difference in their mental health.

Youth suicide intervention goal #2: Getting them to think critically rather than emotionally

Suicides are emotional decisions. They are the product of despair – a despair weaved together by the emotional areas of a person’s mind. The human brain possesses a highly developed cortex that gives us our intelligence. But our brain is organized so that this intellectual capacity is built on top of more primitive areas of the mind; namely, those regions that control fear and other emotions, basic instincts, memory, automatic reflexes, and so on. Cognitive scientists typically refer to these primitive areas as lower brain functions, and our reasoning centers as higher brain functions.

When emotional areas are active, they can mute or inhibit activity in the higher reasoning centers of the brain. In turn, one primary function of these higher reasoning centers is to both interpret and suppress signals coming from our lower brain in order to keep our impulses in check. But when a person is distressed and stuck in an emotional state, neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) are released that effectively shut down the ability of the higher reasoning centers to talk to the lower brain areas. Essentially, it puts our impulsive, irrational emotional centers in control of our mind, which means critical thinking is severely dampened whereas fear and despair are allowed to run wild. As psychiatrist Edward Hallowell puts it, “When those deep brain areas are active, they shanghai your cortical neurons. Your IQ plummets. Your creativity, your sense of humor – all of that disappears. You’re stupid.” (Hagerman, 2008, p. 117)

This, in a nutshell, is the brain of the human condition. It’s why the same person can be both highly intelligent and irrationally stupid at different junctures in their life. You can see this dilemma all throughout society. Yes, we can fly in space and put robots on Mars, but we are also a species that runs a high probability of self-imposed extinction in the very near future, because we also regularly act in silly and self-defeating ways. Sadly, even when it comes to the way we build and organize societies, the logic of fear and prejudice from primitive brain areas seems to win the day more often than does reason and intelligence. Put bluntly, decisions with far-reaching consequences are routinely made utilizing the same brainpower and analytical skills that an African gazelle or even your average house cat could muster.

It’s also why people engage in self-destructive acts such as suicide. In a distressed state when emotions are running wild, people are, quite literally, unable to think clearly. Their ability to use every area of their brain to come to rational decisions is severely hampered. Therefore one of the most important goals in talking with someone who is suicidal should be to flip the switch in their mind from emotional reasoning to cognitive reasoning, putting those higher brain areas back in control of their thoughts. Throughout your discussions, you want to find ways to bring the analytical part of their brain back online.

Youth suicide intervention goal #3: Help them see other options

Somewhere in their despondency, in their lonely and ultimately elusive search for answers, the options they perceive to achieve happiness become narrow, limited. The fact that suicide is even considered a credible option is an obvious sign, often coming too late, of just how few options they actually perceive.”  – Dr. Andrew Slaby & Lily Frank Garfinkel (1994, p. 105)

When a person is suicidal, it means they feel that they’ve exhausted every other credible option. They’ve come to the sad conclusion that killing themselves is the only way to end the pain. . . a pain so severe that it makes life unbearable. So your ultimate task is to help them do what their depressed mind is unable to: see other options and solutions for their despair.

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